23 Czeching Kerr
by Malcolm Redfellow
A long while ago, when the world was a wee bit younger, Malcolm hit upon a solid block of a Penguin, Berlin Noir, from 1993. That was, and is the anthology of the first three Philip Kerr Bernie Gunther stories. And they are good. So much so that Malcolm intends, one day, to find a less dog-eared copy. The anthology comprises:
- March Violets, originally from 1989.
We start in the recognisable mitteleuropäische suburbs of Chandler’s Marloweburg: a steel magnate hires PI Gunther to sort out a double murder and a stolen necklace. So far, so down these mean streets of LaLaLand. Except this is 1936, in Nazi Berlin.
- The Pale Criminal. from 1990.
Two years later, and it’s 1938: hear those war-drums a-thrummin’, Chamberlain’s a-cummin’. Gunther is headed off on a blackmail. Yes: it involves a bit of gay sex, and this is Nazi Berlin. In mid-snoop Gunther is hauled into the SD by Obergruppenfuhrer Heydrich, and deputed to find the serial-killer of blonde, blue-eyed Arian chicks. This is also the launch-pad for Prague Fatale, the most recent Gunther excursion, and the intended topic of this post.
- A German Requiem, from 1991.
Swiftly on to 1947. Gunther has spent the back-end of WW2 in a Russian POW camp. Not nice. His wife is selling her soul, and other parts, to the US Army of Occupation. Gunther is recruited by a ex-colleague to sort out an unpleasantness in Vienna. Here Kerr is trespassing on Greene’s Harry Lime stuff, so we have Nazis working for the Yanks to spy on the Russkis.
At which point we all thought Kerr had finished with Gunther, and had betook himself off to ever weirder territories. We were wrong: Kerr has kept Bernie in play for:
Malcolm would have a small wager that number 9 was, at some point, intended to follow along shortly, as the second volume of Prague Fatale. There is a discontinuity between the opening of this book and its hasty conclusion.
This one begins:
Monday-Tuesday 8-9 June 1942
It was a fine warm day when, together with SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Tristan Eugen Heydrich, the Reichsprotector of Bohemia and Moravia, I arrived back from Prague at Berlin’s Anhalter Station. We were bothwearing SD uniform but, unlike the General, I was a man with a spring in my step, a tune in my head, and a smile in my heart. I was glad to be home in the city of my birth. I was looking forward to a quiet evening with a good bottle of Mackensedler and some Kemals I had liberated from Heydrich’s personal supply at his office in Hradschin Castle. But I wasn’t in the least worried he might discover this petty theft. I wasn’t worried about anything very much. I was everything that Heydrich was not. I was alive.
The Berlin newspapers gave out that the unfortunate Heydrich had been assasssinated by a team of terrorists who had parachuted into Bohemia from England. It was a little more complicated than this, only I wasn’t about to say as much. Not yet. Not for a long time. Maybe not ever.
Yet, at the end of Prague Fatale,Gunther wraps up the murders of Ernst Udet and Heydrich in fewer than two dozen pages (pp 412-434). Neither departs in quite the way the usual histories have it. The clues are all there:
- that opening but if disingenuous shoulder-shrugging;
- the page count (four hundred is over one’s thriller ration);
- the speed of delivery of the concluding two chapters.
Kerr has the advantage, of course, that no Nazi’s reputation is incapable of further bespoiling. Having shafted the unspeakable Heydrich in this one, Kerr is running out of similar targets — Himmler would be ideal, but went in well-attested fashion in British custody in late May, 1945, when Kerr had Gunther otherwise detained. Unless, of course, the ever-resourceful Kerr can arrange it, however improbably.
Beyond all that, has Kerr finished, even now, with Gunther? There are only small gaps left in the historical narrative into which further alarums and excursions can be slotted. Kerr has already transported Gunther across three main land masses, between three dictatorships, several imprisonments, and nearly four decades of time.
Oh, and a final thought … nice of golden-girl Adele Bloch-Bauer to show up in the process —